Before she was a year old, Hannah Ostrea was diagnosed with a rare genetic metabolic disorder, Neuronopathic Gaucher’s Disease type 2 or type 3. Hannah’s mom, Carrie, says the doctors told her to take Hannah home and to love her, but that she wouldn’t make it past her first birthday. “We became parents on a mission,” says Carrie who immediately began researching Gaucher’s and related diseases. Soon she began contacting researchers and sending samples of Hanna’s cells to them in the United States, Canada and Israel in hope that someone might find some way to help Hannah. Carries learn that very little was being done to understand the devastating effects of Gaucher’s and that the researchers who were dedicated to studying the disease were remarkably under-funded. Carrie also learned that there are a lot of people and a lot of children with rare diseases, but that there are not a lot of answers and not a lot of funding for any of them. She also knew, first hand, that there weren’t a lot of resources available to families with children with rare diseases. Care saw a need and she started taking the steps to fill it.
Her first step was creating the Little Miss Hannah Foundation (LMHF), a non disease-specific, Las Vegas-based, non-profit organization for children diagnosed with rare diseases, children with undiagnosed medical complexities, and children in hospice or palliative care. “All these diseases, they all suck. It doesn’t matter what the disease is.” says Carrie. LMHF provides resources for local children and their families and they also emphasize the importance of supporting the other children in the family. “We want the siblings to know they are important too,” says Carrie who adds that Hannah’s illness greatly impacted the lives of her two other children. “There should always be resources for a family like ours,” says Carrie who describes her experience as the parent of a child with a rare disease as isolating because of the lack of awareness, understanding and resources. The medical community doesn’t have answers and the insurance companies won’t always cover expenses because they don’t recognize or have never heard of the diseases. Through LMHF, Carrie is committed to providing families with financial assistance and the tools and support they need. It is LMHF’s mission to empower patients and their families and it is Carrie’s passion.
In addition to running LMHF, Carrie spent five years working with Global Genes, a rare disease patient advocacy group, and she is now using her business and marketing background as a consultant for organizations like LMHF. She says there are over 7,000 rare diseases and half of those have no support group. The ones that do are often started by patients or parents of patients, like Carrie, that are just trying to save a life. Often times they have little to no knowledge or experience about how to run an organization. “I educate them on where they need to go,” says Carrie who calls herself the big sister of rare disease groups. She mainly advises the groups on the business end of their organizations. As is true for many advocacy groups, funding and awareness are the greatest needs for rare disease organizations and Carrie says social media has helped tremendously. She says she has noticed a strengthening in patient groups and advocacy in the past five years. “Social media is a godsend to rare disease. It has given advocates a platform,” she says. “It just takes one person who is willing to put themselves out there to start a chain.”
Carrie continues to take steps to fill the need she saw when Hannah was diagnosed. She says there is a lot more work to be done, but that she will continue to share her knowledge to help others in whatever way she can. “We are very pay-it-forward in the rare disease community,” says Carrie. “There’s no time not to be.”
Hannah was three when she died. She spent the last seven weeks of her life at home surrounded by her family and in hospice care. She died in Carrie’s arms. The Little Miss Hannah Foundation is her legacy and so much more. “It’s our way of still parenting her,” says Carrie. “We just do it a little differently.”
To learn more about Hannah’s story and the Little Miss Hannah Foundation visit littlemisshannah.org.
Jennifer Lessinger is a professional writer and editor who learned the value of patient empowerment during her struggle with a hard-to-diagnose and complex endocrine disorder.